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Synthetic Bio: Beyond the Science Fair
Carl Zimmer is a science writer, lecturer, and frequent guest on such radio programs as Fresh Air and This American Life. His books include "Soul Made Flesh," "Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea," and "Parasite Rex." In addition to writing books, Zimmer contributes articles to The New York Times, as well as magazines including National Geographic, Time, Scientific American, Science, and Popular Science. He also writes an award-winning blog, The Loom. From 1994 to 1998 Zimmer was a senior editor at Discover, where he remains a contributing editor and writes a monthly column about the brain.
Zimmer is a lecturer at Yale University, where he teaches writing about science and the environment. He is also the first Visiting Scholar at the Science, Health, and Environment Reporting Program at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute.
Zimmer is a Big Think Delphi Fellow.
Question: What are the latest frontiers in synthetic biology?
Carl Zimmer: So synthetic biology is in a way a very new kind of science and not so new in another way. In the late 1960’s scientists were figuring out sort of the basic molecular workings of life and they were understanding it so well, particularly in little organisms like e-coli and bacteria that they said you know we might be able to actually engineer living things and so the first really spectacular example of that was with e-coli. What scientists did was take a gene for insulin for human insulin, the kind of insulin we make in our own bodies and inserting that into e coli and so now you have e-coli with this gene actually churning out human insulin and so a lot of diabetics today actually get their insulin from e coli. It doesn’t say e coli on the box, but that is where it comes from. So that went by the name of genetic engineering and basically gave rise to the whole biotechnology industry, which is about an 80 billion dollar industry today.
So more recently scientists have said maybe we can take this further. Rather than just sticking one or two or three genes into a host microbe for example you know maybe we can tailor entire networks of genes that can do really sophisticated new things and so what they’re trying to do is they’re trying to think about e coli or any other microbe or cell as kind of a network in the same way that you could think of the circuits in a cell phone as a network and so they just take the point of view of an engineer and they just say I’m going to rearrange this network, I’m going to plug in new units and make this network work differently and do new things, things that you might never imagine living things doing before.
Right now synthetic biology is still in kind of the science fair state I would call it and actually if you got to MIT every year they have a contest for students. So these undergraduates get together and they say, “Hey, wouldn’t it be cool if for example we could make e coli flash in these pretty colors?” “Let’s make e coli that gives off rainbows of colors.” Or, “Let’s make e coli that gives off the odor of spearmint because normally e coli smells pretty nasty, so let’s make the nice smelling e coli.” And it takes undergraduates a few weeks in the summer to do just that, which is amazing and a little scary that even an 18 year-old has the power to transform life in ways that it has never been transformed before. The reason that they can do this all is because there are now these online databases of genes and they’re basically laid out kind of like you would look in a catalog of circuit parts for example and you can say, “I want that.” “I want that.” “I want that and I’m going to plug them together to make them do whatever it is I want them to do.” Now we’re going to go very rapidly from the science-fair stage to the industrial stage. I mean there is a huge amount of investment in synthetic biology now. One of the really spectacular possible advances is using e coli or maybe yeast to make medicine for malaria. There is a very effective medicine for malaria that comes from a plant called a wormwood plant, which normally grows in Asia. The problem there is that it’s hard to raise the plant and then isolate this drug from it. It’s called Artemisia. It’s expensive and it’s slow and it keeps the price pretty high. So the hope is that scientists at the University of California Berkley are going to be able to program yeast by just plugging in genes from different kinds of plants to churn out a precursor of Artemisia in huge amounts and then you can just take that and just refine it a little bit and boom, you’ve got incredibly cheap drugs for malaria, which you know you could theoretically distribute around the world or actually you could just take these yeast themselves and setup tanks of them in different parts of the world, so you could have them churning out this medicine on site.
Recorded on January 6, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen
MIT students now generate their own strains of e coli for class projects. But synthetic biology is about to get a whole lot bigger.
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Gender and sexual minority populations are experiencing rising anxiety and depression rates during the pandemic.
- Anxiety and depression rates are spiking in the LGBTQ+ community, and especially in individuals who hadn't struggled with those issues in the past.
- Overall, depression increased by an average PHQ-9 score of 1.21 and anxiety increased by an average GAD-7 score of 3.11.
- The researchers recommended that health care providers check in with LGBTQ+ patients about stress and screen for mood and anxiety disorders—even among those with no prior history of anxiety or depression.
Study findings<p>For the study, <a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11606-020-05970-4" target="_blank">published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine</a><em>, </em>Flentje and her team evaluated survey responses from nearly 2,300 individuals who identified as being in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ+) community. Most of the participants were white, while nearly 19 percent identified as a racial or ethnic minority. Multiple genders were represented with cisgender women (27.2 percent) and men (24.6 percent) making up a majority of the participants. Sixty-three percent had been assigned female at birth. For the most part, participants identified their sexual orientations as queer (40.3 percent), gay (36.5 percent), and bisexual (30.3 percent).</p><p>The JGIM study participants were recruited from the 18,000-participant <a href="https://pridestudy.org/" target="_blank">PRIDE Study</a> (Population Research in Identity and Disparities for Equality), which is the first large-scale, long-term national study focusing on American adults who identify as LGBTQ+. It conducts annual questionnaires to understand factors related to health and disease in this population. </p><p>Participants filled out an annual questionnaire (starting in June 2019) and a COVID-19 impact survey this past spring. Flentje noted that on an individual level, some people may not have experienced a big change in anxiety or depression levels, but for others there was. Overall, depression increased by a <a href="https://patient.info/doctor/patient-health-questionnaire-phq-9" target="_blank">PHQ-9 score</a> of 1.21, putting it at 8.31 on average. Anxiety went up by a <a href="https://www.mdcalc.com/gad-7-general-anxiety-disorder-7" target="_blank">GAD-7</a> score of 3.11 to an average of 8.89. Interestingly, the average PHQ-9 scores for those who screened positive for depression at the first 2019 survey decreased by 1.08. Those who screened negative for depression saw their PHQ-9 scores increase by 2.17 on average. As for anxiety, researchers detected no GAD-7 change among the study participants who screened positive for anxiety in the first survey, but did see an overall increase of 3.93 among those who had initially been evaluated as negative for the disorder. </p>
Risks among gender and sexual minorities<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="fc3fd1ae68b77bbbf58a6995638d6d65"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/EnUqDjCqg0A?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>The LGBTQ+ community is a vulnerable population to mental health concerns because of their fear of stigmatization and previous discriminatory experiences.</p> <p>Previous research by the Human Rights Campaign has found "that LGBTQ Americans are more likely than the <a href="https://medicalxpress.com/tags/general+population/" target="_blank">general population</a> to live in poverty and lack access to adequate medical care, paid <a href="https://medicalxpress.com/tags/medical+leave/" target="_blank">medical leave</a>, and basic necessities during the pandemic," said researcher Tari Hanneman, director of the health and aging program at the campaign.</p> <p>"Therefore, it is not surprising to see this increase in anxiety and depression among this population," Hanneman said in the release. "This study highlights the need for <a href="https://medicalxpress.com/tags/health+care+professionals/" target="_blank">health care professionals</a> to support, affirm and provide <a href="https://medicalxpress.com/tags/critical+care/" target="_blank">critical care</a> for the LGBTQ community to manage and maintain their mental health, as well as their physical health, during this pandemic."</p>
What should health care providers do?<p>The authors of the study recommend that health care providers check in with LGBTQ+ patients about stress and screen for mood and anxiety disorders in members of that community—even among those with no prior history of anxiety or depression.</p><p>As cases of COVID-19 continue to mount, the sustained social distancing, potential isolation, economic precariousness, and personal illness, grief, and loss are bound to have increased and varied impacts on mental health. Effective treatments may include individual therapy and medications as well as more large-scale coronavirus support programs like peer-led groups and mindfulness practices. </p><p>"It will be important to find out what happens over time and to identify who is most at risk, so we can be sure to roll out public health interventions to support the mental health of our communities in the best and most effective ways," said Flentje.</p>
What we know about black holes is both fascinating and scary.
- When it comes to black holes, science simultaneously knows so much and so little, which is why they are so fascinating. Focusing on what we do know, this group of astronomers, educators, and physicists share some of the most incredible facts about the powerful and mysterious objects.
- A black hole is so massive that light (and anything else it swallows) can't escape, says Bill Nye. You can't see a black hole, theoretical physicists Michio Kaku and Christophe Galfard explain, because it is too dark. What you can see, however, is the distortion of light around it caused by its extreme gravity.
- Explaining one unsettling concept from astrophysics called spaghettification, astronomer Michelle Thaller says that "If you got close to a black hole there would be tides over your body that small that would rip you apart into basically a strand of spaghetti that would fall down the black hole."
The team caught a glimpse of a process that takes 18,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 years.
- In Italy, a team of scientists is using a highly sophisticated detector to hunt for dark matter.
- The team observed an ultra-rare particle interaction that reveals the half-life of a xenon-124 atom to be 18 sextillion years.
- The half-life of a process is how long it takes for half of the radioactive nuclei present in a sample to decay.
A new study looks at what would happen to human language on a long journey to other star systems.
- A new study proposes that language could change dramatically on long space voyages.
- Spacefaring people might lose the ability to understand the people of Earth.
- This scenario is of particular concern for potential "generation ships".